March came in like a lion this year, and the weather here is quite wicked at the moment, but I’m thinking of gardening and, particularly, of flowers. One of the most fascinating and charming books ever written on the subject of flora is Diana Wells’s 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names. I have a hunch that most people who enjoy gardening also enjoy history, and Wells’s little book is a gathering of historical facts on each of these flowers, most of them quite entertaining, as she writes with a lovely sense of humor as well as intelligence. It’s the type of book you can randomly open to any page and find delightful reading for a minute or two, for most of the flowers are described in only two pages, but the writing is so good I read it from cover-to-cover when I first bought it, many years ago. Whenever I pluck it from my shelf, I think to myself that it would have been the perfect gift for my grandmother, who was the most bookish gardener I ever knew (which is saying something, as gardeners are a bookish lot!) and who would have delighted in reading the histories and myths attached to her favorite flowers.
Below I’ve excerpted the author’s enchanting entry on one of the early flowers of spring, the forget-me-not. A friend of mine has these tender blue flowers growing so profusely in her garden, they look like a blue mist spiraling around her pathways in the months of April and May.
BOTANICAL NAME: Myosotis. FAMILY: Boraginaceae.
Its botanical name comes from the Greek mus (mouse) and otis (ear). This is from the rather touching perception that the leaves are shaped like a mouse’s ears. John Gerard called it “scorpion grass” and believed that it cured scorpion bites, though there are no scorpions in England—but maybe it was best to be prepared.
The name “forget-me-not” comes from the Old French ne m’ oubliez mye, which in turn was a translation of the German vergiss mein nicht. The best known legend about the flower is of a German knight picking a posy of forget-me-nots for his beloved as they strolled together on a riverbank. He slipped and fell in, but before drowning he threw her the flowers, crying, “Vergiss mein nicht.” This excruciating story could really only have merit were it to be sung onstage with a suitably distraught and bosomy soprano and some excellent trap-door mechanisms. Botanically it doesn’t hold much water.
Blue is a celestial color and it almost always clothes the Virgin Mary in medieval paintings. Flies reputedly will avoid blue rooms, which is why dairies were often painted blue. Gardeners treasure blue flowers, which are rarer than any other color in our borders. Blue and yellow are also the colors that most attract insect pollinators, which is what interested Christian Sprengel in forget-me-nots. Sprengel, rector of Spandau in Germany, was investigating the role that colors of flowers play in the process of insect pollination. He so neglected his pastoral duties to pursue botany that he was dismissed from his post. In 1793 he published The Newly Revealed Mystery of Nature in the Structure and Fertilization of Flowers, which demonstrated his belief that all nature had a connected purpose. It was, however, unenthusiastically received by his contemporaries, leaving him too depressed to publish anything more. It was not until 1841 that Charles Darwin read the book and recognized the truths in it, which he incorporated into his own research.
“Forget-me-not” is one of the few flower names that almost everyone knows and remember, and the flowers commonly decorate Valentine cards and the like. They grow in damp places and are, indeed, bluer that the Virgin’s robe. The most memorable place they grew, however, was in Lady Chatterley’s pubic hair, where her gamekeeper lover planted them, saying, “There’s forget-me-nots in the right place.” When she looked down at the “odd little flowers among the brown maiden-hair,” she said, “Doesn’t it look pretty!” The gamekeeper’s reply is unforgettable: “Pretty as life,” he said. †
— Diana Wells, from her book 100 Flowers
and How They Got Their Names
†100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, copyright © 1997 by Diana Wells (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1997, pp. 72-73)